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APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 342
Advances in Psychiatric Treatment (2002), vol. 8, pp. 342–350
Wallace et al/Oyebode
Simulated patients and objective
structured clinical examinations:
review of their use in medical education
Jeremy Wallace, Ranga Rao & Richard Haslam
Simulated or standardised patients have been used
in medical education and other medical settings for
some 30 years (Box 1). Their use encompasses undergraduate and postgraduate learning, the monitoring
of doctors’ performance and standardisation of
clinical examinations. Simulation has been used for
instruction in industry and the military for much
longer (Jason et al, 1971) but the first known effective
use of simulated patients was by Barrows & Abrahamson (1964), who used them to appraise students’
performance in clinical neurology examinations.
The objective structured clinical examination (OSCE)
was first described by Harden & Gleeson as, ‘a timed
examination in which medical students interact with
a series of simulated patients in stations that may
involve history-taking, physical examination,
counselling or patient management’ (Harden &
Gleeson, 1979). Because OSCEs have been shown to
be feasible and have good reliability and validity
(Hodges et al, 1998) their use has become widespread
as the standard for performance-based assessment,
particularly in undergraduate examinations.
The use of OSCEs in undergraduate examinations
(‘summative’ use) occurs in every London medical
college and was pioneered by the Royal London and
St Bartholomew’s Hospitals. Many colleges across
the UK have now adapted their examinations to
include these components. In addition, there is
considerable uptake in the use of simulated patients
for medical student training (‘formative’ use).
Several of the medical Royal Colleges have introduced an OSCE component into their postgraduate
Box 1 Uses of simulated patients in educational settings
Teaching communication skills
Teaching clinical skills
Monitoring the performance of doctors
membership examinations. For example, the Royal
College of Anaesthetists includes an OSCE in Part I
of the fellowship examination, and the Royal College
of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has an OSCE
in Part II of their examinations. The Royal College of
Surgeons, London, are introducing OSCEs and a
pilot is being planned for this year. The Royal College
of Physicians has a Practical Assessment of Clinical
Examination Skills (PACES) in their clinical
examinations, part of which comprises a communication and ethics station, in which simulated
patients are used. Although the preferred method of
examination is with videotape of real consultations,
the Royal College of General Practitioners has a
‘simulated surgery’ that about 5% of candidates use.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has recently
proposed changes to the existing membership
examinations with a view to increasing their
reliability and validity (http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/
traindev/exams/exam_recent.htm). The main
changes are to the Part I examination, and from spring
2003 the existing individual patient assessment will
Jeremy Wallace is currently a specialist registrar in general adult and old age psychiatry and assistant course organiser of the
Guy’s, King’s and St Thomas’ (GKT) Royal College of Psychiatrists’ membership (MRCPsych) course. His interests include
transcultural psychiatry and evaluating medical education. Ranga Rao is a consultant psychiatrist with the South London and
Maudsley NHS Trust (Ladywell University Hospital, Lewisham, London SE13 6LH, UK) and senior lecturer at the GKT
Medical School, University of London. He is the organiser of the GKT MRCPsych course based at Guy’s Hospital and his
research interests include substance misuse, neuroimaging and evaluating medical education. Richard Haslam is a specialist
registrar in general adult psychiatry based at the York Clinic, Guy’s Hospital, and assistant organiser of the GKT MRCPsych
course. His interests include evaluating medical education and communication technology in medicine.
Simulated patients and OSCEs
be replaced by an OSCE, in which simulated patients
are likely to be used. The Part II examination will
essentially retain the same format.
In view of the proposed changes we feel that a
review of the literature surrounding the use of simulated patients and OSCEs would be both useful and
timely. In this paper we focus on the following issues.
First, the definition of simulated patients; second,
the feasibility of standardising simulators; third, a
historical overview of simulated patients in medical
settings; and fourth, the reliability and validity of
OSCEs. We also comment on the possible burden to
the people who are playing the part of patients.
Who are simulated patients?
Despite the increasing use of simulated patients in
medical education, there remains a problem when
reviewing the literature regarding what is meant by
a simulated or standardised patient. Some authors
use the term simulated patients (Sanson-Fisher &
Poole, 1980; Norman et al, 1982), but others use the
term standardised patients (Rubin & Philp, 1998).
Although having quite different meanings, these two
terms are often used interchangeably. Others have
used the terms pseudo or surrogate patients (Badger
et al, 1995). Vu & Barrow’s (1994) definition of
standardised patients includes ‘real or simulated
patients who have been coached to present a clinical
problem’. We found only one reference relating to
the use of real patients (McLure et al, 1985). Therefore,
in the rest of this review we use the term ‘simulated
patients’, as we feel it encompasses all definitions.
In some cases simulated patients are professionally
trained actors playing the part of patients (Norman
et al, 1982). However, Sanson- Fisher & Poole (1980),
when comparing medical students’ performance
with that of real and simulated patients, used
volunteer simulators who were not ‘members of the
acting profession’. In a description of new medical
student teaching at Michigan State University, Jason
et al (1971) write that their simulated patients were
‘primarily drama students from our campus’ and
additionally ‘several housewives, some of whom
had no previous acting experience’. Rubin & Philp
(1998), in a study of the health perceptions of
simulators, state that simulated patients were
recruited from ‘the allied health programmes at local
colleges, community volunteer programmes, the
community senior citizen programme and from
clinics at a university-based department of family
medicine’. Others, for example Hodges et al (1996),
do not clearly state where they recruited their
simulated patients. Therefore, simulated patients are
not a homogeneous group and their only common
APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 343
characteristic is that of simulating real patients. This
raises the question of whether such a diverse group
can be trained to behave in a ‘standardised’ way.
Uses of simulated patients in
clinical and educational settings
Teaching communication skills
This is the main use in medical education, where the
use of simulation gives students the opportunity to be
involved in approximations of real-world settings.
Here they are confronted with the challenging task
of establishing a relationship while eliciting clinical
information. The major advantage of effectively
devised simulations is that they can simultaneously
have most of the engaging qualities of reality while
being explicitly controlled and safe (Jason et al, 1971).
Other advantages include the role simulators have
in giving direct feedback to medical students on
their performance and their being readily available
for teaching purposes (Sanson- Fisher & Poole, 1980).
In a well-controlled study, Sanson-Fisher & Poole
(1980) demonstrated the validity of using simulated
patients in the assessment of medical students’
interpersonal skills. The simulators were psychiatry
out-patients and the dependent measure was a
rating of empathy based on a retrospective review
of audio recordings. They demonstrated that student
performance, on a rating of empathy, was not significantly different with genuine as opposed to
simulated patients. In addition, they reported that
students were unable to discriminate between
persons simulating a patient role and those who
presented a real history.
Teaching clinical skills
Norman et al (1982), in a study within a postgraduate
setting, showed that simulated patients could be
used in areas that went beyond communication skills
alone. Using a sample of 10 residents within hospital
and family medicine they compared residents’ performance on four real patients with chronic stable
conditions and on four simulators coached to present
the same problem. They found that there were no
significant differences in the number of questions
asked in the history, physical examination findings,
diagnosis considered or investigations proposed by
the residents. Interestingly, the residents elicited more
historical information from the simulated patients,
but this was found to be due to a single case in which
the real patient, a woman with multiple sclerosis,
had memory loss. Residents also correctly identified
APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 344
67% of the patients as real or simulated (against a
chance 50%). Arguably, a problem with the studies
by both Norman et al (1982) Sanson-Fisher & Poole
(1980) is whether they can be generalised beyond
the settings and patient problems involved.
Monitoring doctors’ performance
Another use of simulated patients is in the monitoring
of doctors’ performance. For example, Rethans &
Boven (1987) in The Netherlands introduced simulated patients into 48 general practitioners’ (GPs’)
surgeries and collected data about their performance. The simulators described symptoms of a
urinary tract infection and the researchers were
interested in whether the GPs acted according to a
consensus standard for managing a patient
presenting with this condition. The GPs did not
detect the simulators and GP performance was on
the whole shown to be a more accurate reflection of
actual practice than is elicted by written simulations.
Rethans et al (1991) repeated this study for other
clinical problems such as headaches, diarrhoea,
diabetes and shoulder pain and found similar
results, which led them to conclude that ‘standardised patients may be the method of choice in the
assessment of quality of actual care of doctors’. They
state that existing methods for performance assessment, such as written tests and clinical examinations,
have doubtful reliability and validity. Although
audio and video recordings of consultations can be
reliable and valid, they feel that the limited control
over patient characteristics makes it difficult to
compare performance between doctors.
A study by McLure et al (1985) introduced trained
patients with uncomplicated rheumatic disease into
the consulting rooms of 26 family physicians in
Arizona. The physicians’ ability to collect diagnostic
information and formulate a plan was investigated.
They found that despite the fact that most of the
physicians neglected areas such as psychosocial
impact and mental health issues, the majority made
an adequate assessment and virtually all developed
an adequate care plan. They felt that the simulated
patient method provided an unobtrusive way of
auditing physicians’ encounters and that the technique
can be used in peer review and the planning of training
programmes. It is interesting to note, however, that
additional postgraduate education does not seem to
change the practice of doctors (Sibley et al, 1982).
Simulated patients and clinical
The traditional oral examination has been criticised
for its inherent unreliability and poor validity
Wallace et al/Oyebode
(Hodges et al, 1997). Data gathered by the National
Board of Medical Examinations in the USA (1960–
1963), involving over 10 000 medical students,
showed that the correlation of independent evaluations by two examiners was less than 0.25
(Hubbard et al, 1963). It has also been demonstrated
that the luck of the draw in selection of examiner
and patient played a significant role in the outcome
of postgraduate oral examinations in psychiatry
(Leichner et al, 1984). Indeed, Leichner et al went on
to suggest that the use of OSCEs may be a feasible
means of improving the validity and reliability of
oral examinations (Leichner et al, 1986).
An advantage of simulated patients over real
patients is that of allowing different students to be
presented with a similar challenge, thereby reducing
an important source of variability (Norman et al,
1985). Other advantages include their reliable
availability and adaptability, which enables the
reproduction of a wide range of clinical phenomena
tailored to the student’s level of skill. In addition,
they can simulate scenarios that may be distressing
for a real patient, such as bereavement or terminal
illness (Sanson-Fisher & Poole, 1980).
A disadvantage of simulated patients is that they
may become ideal ‘textbook cases’, to which real
patients, with all their idiosyncrasies, do not often
conform. Another disadvantage, discussed by
Hodges et al (1997), is the expense of simulated
patients, whose training and time spent performing
accounted for the largest proportion of the direct
cost of setting up OSCEs. Hodges et al do, however,
go on to point out that this cost is more than made
up for by the reduced faculty hours per annum that
it takes to set up OSCEs compared with traditional
oral examinations (Box 2).
Standardisation and training
of simulated patients
The range of clinical problems that simulators can
reproduce is wide and varied, but training is
essential to making their performance as lifelike as
possible. Arguably, this is of key importance with
respect to the issue of standardisation. However, we
have found little in the literature on what is meant
by standardisation or on the benchmark standards
to which the simulators are trained.
We feel that standardisation has two components:
the validity or accuracy of performance and the
reliability or consistency of performance when faced
with different examinees. The first of these has been
determined in a number of ways. Both content and
face validity have been addressed by getting an
Simulated patients and OSCEs
Box 2 Advantages and disadvantages of
objective structured clinical examinations
Simulations of real-life situations
Close to reality
Controlled and safe
Feedback from the actors (simulators)
Ready availability when required
Stations can be tailored to level of skill to be
Scenarios that are distressing to real patients
can be simulated
The patient variable in examination is uniform
The idealised ‘textbook’ scenarios may not
mimic real-life situations
May not allow assessment of complex skills
Training issues in setting up the stations
expert to review the simulations and determine their
accuracy. For example, Hodges et al (1997) mention
that each simulated patient was observed performing the role by the OSCE station author to verify the
realism of the performance. Indirect indicators of
validity might include the fact that simulators are
rarely distinguished from real patients (SansonFisher & Poole, 1980; Baerheim & Malterud, 1995).
This non-detectability suggests that their behaviour
is similar to that of real patients. This was further
explored in a double-blind study in which simulated
patients were substituted for real patients in the
individual patient assessment of mock clinical
examinations in psychiatry (further details available
from the author upon request). Neither the examiners
nor the students could detect the presence of
simulated patients among the real patients. Hodges
et al (1997) demonstrated the construct validity of
OSCE psychiatry clerkship examinations by
comparing the performance of residents and medical
students. Concurrent validity was demonstrated by
asking tutors responsible for the students to rank
them with respect to their interviewing skills. The
tutors’ rankings predicted the rankings generated
by the performance on OSCE stations. Assessment
of content validity was made by asking residents
how real the simulations were: 80% described the
scenarios as real or very real.
Badger et al (1995) investigated reliability of
simulated patients in their consistency of performance over time and between trainees. Their study
analysed the performance of 13 simulated patients
during 228 doctor–patient encounters in a year-long
APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 345
study related to the diagnosis of depression. Results
revealed high intra- and interperformance reliabilities, even when intervals between performances were
as long as 3 months. The doctors detected depression
in 30% of simulators, roughly the same detection
rate as in real patients. In a review of simulated
patients, Vu & Barrows (1994) state that ‘with good
training, the simulated patients can be accurate and
consistent in the essential features of their simulations’. Vu et al (1987) have also reported that
simulated patients are able to enact their roles
reliably up to 12 times a day.
A key requisite for achieving both accuracy and
consistency of simulated patient performance is good
training. Much of the literature refers to the standard
methods described by Barrows (1971). For example,
in a study to test the validity of psychiatric undergraduate OSCEs, Hodges et al (1997) describe the
work of an experienced simulated patient trainer:
‘training for a role begins with the presentation of
written material and where possible, video footage
of real patients. Each simulated patient is then observed
performing the role by the station’s author to verify
the realism of the portrayal and to ensure consistency across the simulated patients in their presentation of affect and in their response to questions.’
Objective structured clinical
examinations and psychiatry
In many disciplines and specialities OSCEs have
been studied extensively and their reliability and
validity established (Hodges et al, 1997). This has
been more difficult to achieve in psychiatry
examinations, and there are several reasons to
believe that an OSCE might not be as valid in the
assessment of psychiatric skills. First, the binary
checklists typically used in most OSCEs are
insufficiently sensitive to detect higher clinical
components such as empathy, rapport and ethics
(Cox, 1990). Second, although a typical OSCE station
lasts up to 15 minutes, a traditional psychiatric
interview is of 50 minutes, raising questions about
the content validity of the short OSCE station.
Finally, there are some who argue that complex
psychiatric presentations such as thought disorder
are difficult to simulate (Hodges et al, 1998).
Famuyiwa et al (1991), at the university of Lagos
in Nigeria, investigated whether the OSCE examination in psychiatry was effective and valid. By
comparing the OSCE scores of 123 students with
criterion-based reference scores on multiple choice
questions he found that the multiple choice marks
correlated significantly with the OSCE marks.
APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 346
Much of the work in this area, however, has been
carried out by Hodges and colleagues at the
University of Toronto. For example, in 1995, following the success of a number of pilot OSCEs, they
included an eight-station OSCE into the curriculum
as a criterion for medical students to pass the
psychiatry clerkship. Subsequent analysis of this
OSCE suggested that a psychiatric OSCE is a feasible
method for assessing complex psychiatric skills.
These skills were evaluated in three ways. First,
behaviours identified as important to a successful
interview were scored as ‘done’ or ‘not done’ on a
binary checklist. For example, a station on depression
might typically include the questions ‘Asks about
sleep?’ and ‘Asks about suicidal ideation?’ Box 3
shows amended extracts from Guy’s, King’s and St
Thomas’ psychiatric OSCE rating form. Second, a
global rating scale for performance was scored using
four 5-point scales that addressed each student’s
organisation, rapport, interview-building skills and
control of his or her emotions during the interview.
Third, each examiner recorded a global impression
of each student’s performance. They examined 192
medical students on two parallel forms (A and B) of
the examination and found it to have a reasonably
high interstation reliability (Form A: Cronbach’s
α = 0.64; Form B, α = 0.66). However, they add that
’Whilst it is generally desirable to have a reliability of
0.80 or greater for high stakes examinations … [t]he
reliability we have found is adequate for decisions
regarding a clerkship rotation’ (Hodges et al, 1997).
We therefore feel that the following issues need
consideration with regard to the introduction of
OSCEs into Part I of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ membership examinations:
(a) In view of this being a ‘high-stakes’ postgraduate examination, how are reliability and
validity being established?
(b) What is the added value of OSCEs over the
current method of examination?
(c) What skills can be adequately tested by binary
(d) How can key psychiatric skills (e.g. empathy
and building rapport with patients be assessed?
Is there a burden
to simulated patients?
It is worth bearing in mind that the often highly
emotional nature of simulated patients’ roles can
have a residual effect on the simulators. Hodges
et al (1997) note significant sequelae when simulated
patients are required to play difficult roles. These
include difficulties emerging from the characters,
Wallace et al/Oyebode
Box 3 Extracts from binary checklist (Yes /No)
for the core features of depression in a
psychiatric undergraduate examination
(Unpublished: reproduced with permission
of Teifon Davis)
[Candidate] elicits the following aspects of patient’s
Feelings of loss of self-esteem
Early morning wakening
Loss of appetite
Loss of concentration
Loss of libido
Past psychiatric history
Family history of mental disorder
Patient’s response to mental disorder: concerns
Home circumstances: concerns about losing job
exhaustion, euphoria and, more seriously, sleep
disturbances and heightened levels of anxiety, anger
or sadness. They suggest that great care be taken in
the selection of simulated patients and that debriefing and monitoring of simulated patients are
essential. In a 5-year longitudinal study examining
the impact of participation as a simulated patient
on the simulators’ own health care perceptions,
Rubin & Philp (1998) found that, although overall
the simulated patients’ perceptions of their interactions with their own doctors were positive both
before and after participation in OSCEs, perceptions
of their own health care was significantly worse at
1 year post-OSCE. Again, they suggest the need for
The use of simulated patients has a relatively long
history. Simulated patient standardisation, however,
is a poorly defined term, but it involves accuracy
and consistency of performance. Research in OSCE
examinations has shown that reliability and
validity can be achieved, but it is dependent on
adequate and standardised training methods.
With careful planning, it does seem that OSCEs
are a feasible means of testing postgraduates in
psychiatry, and attempts to make the examination
more valid and reliable are to be welcomed. There is
the possibility of a burden to those who simulate
patients, but this can be minimised by careful
selection and debriefing following the examination.
Simulated patients and OSCEs
When considering the use of OSCEs to test
postgraduates we feel it is important to remember
that their nature is to break down clinical skills
into small ‘testable’ tasks. This runs the risk of
training doctors who are very good at performing
these piecemeal tasks without being able to
assimilate them into a coherent assessment. An
analogy might be a pianist who can play beautiful
scales and arpeggios but cannot play a complete
sonata. We would hope that senior house officers
preparing for OSCEs do not forget how to take a
history, make a diagnosis and formulate a management plan. Even though this will be tested in Part
II of the membership examinations, we feel these
are essential skills for all doctors, from house officer
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Multiple choice questions
1. With regard to the selection of simulated patients:
a they are always professional actors
b they may be real patients
c careful selection is unnecessary
d housewives have been used
e it is inadvisable to use students of acting.
2. The following are interchangeable with the term
a surrogate patient
c pretend patient
d standardised patient
e real patient.
3. Uses of simulated patients include:
a teaching communication skills to medical
b reducing variability in examinations by
presenting different students with the same
c teaching clinical skills to postgraduates
d psychiatry examinations
e monitoring the performance of doctors.
4. Simulated patients have the advantage of:
a never being detected
b being more intelligent than real patients
c being able to play scenarios which real patients
may find distressing
d being cheaper than real patients
e having no personal emotions that might
influence the doctor–patient relationship.
APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 348
5. Objective structured clinical examinations
a have no proven reliability or validity in
b test only communication skills
c lend themselves easily to the testing of skills
such as empathy or building rapport with the
d can be used to test ethics
e are difficult to set up.
Wallace et al/Oyebode
The introduction of objective structured clinical
examinations (OSCEs) into the Royal College of
Psychiatrists’ membership (MRCPsych) examinations follows a comprehensive review and reform
of College examinations. In responding to the paper
by Wallace et al (2002, this issue), I will set out the
context of the changes in the College examinations,
identifying the justification for these changes, and
respond to the specific queries raised by Wallace et al.
The aim of education is to ensure that students learn
and know specific facts, comprehend the principles
underpinning these facts, demonstrate the ability to
analyse and evaluate the source of these facts and,
furthermore, show an ability to synthesise information in order to produce new (that is, original)
work. Assessments in their various forms attempt
to test whether students can demonstrate mastery
in these domains. For example, traditional multiple
choice questions (MCQs) test for factual knowledge,
and newer MCQs in the form of extended matching
items (EMIs) test for the application of factual
knowledge to specific situations. In other words, the
test methods are directed at specific domains.
In the College examinations, the critical review
question paper tests the candidate’s ability to
analyse and evaluate information presented in
research reports and the essay paper tests the
candidate’s ability to synthesise information and
communicate it fluently in written format. In
medicine, it is important also to test for competence
in practical, clinical skills. This includes competence
in particular performances such as interviewing the
patient as well as competence in the application of
knowledge to unique situations. The clinical
examinations attempt to test mastery of skills and
competence as well as application of knowledge.
It is true that all assessment methods have weaknesses. These weaknesses are all well rehearsed.
Femi Oyebode is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and Consultant Psychiatrist at the Queen Elizabeth
Psychiatric Hospital (Mindelsohn Way, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2QZ, UK). He is also Chief Examiner of the Royal College
of Psychiatrists. His research interests include the neuropsychology of psychotic symptoms and the application of ethical
principles to the practice of psychiatry.
Simulated patients and OSCEs
Multiple choice question papers have the advantage
of being highly reliable but concerns remain as to
their validity. However, the EMI format is recognised
as being more likely to test clinical reasoning, that
is, the application of clinical knowledge to practical
situations. This is another way of saying that all
tests continue to be refined with a view to reducing
their acknowledged weaknesses.
Essay papers have the advantage that in-depth
knowledge and understanding of a given area can
be tested. But the scope for sampling a wide area of
knowledge is markedly reduced as most essay
papers require the candidates to write only one or
two essays, whereas with MCQ papers a wide area
of knowledge can be examined. The reliability of
essay papers is low compared with MCQ papers.
Thus, systems have to be found to improve the reliability of essays. Training of essay markers, regular
auditing of marked scripts and double-marking as
appropriate are methods widely used to reduce the
potential variability in the marking of essays.
Before the introduction of the critical review paper
the ability to analyse and evaluate data was untested
in the College examinations. The methodology for
this paper was invented specifically for this purpose.
There are no significant issues regarding the content
validity of the paper, but it could be argued that the
terrain that it currently covers is narrow. The paper
could be extended to include the appraisal of
qualitative research data and data from other forms
of scholarship, including the analysis and evaluation of books, essays and journalistic writings.
The traditional method of examining clinical skills
is the single long case. This method has been
adopted by medical schools and postgraduate
professional examinations all the over the world
since it was first introduced in Cambridge in 1842.
As a method, it has face validity. A candidate sees a
real patient, takes a history and conducts an
examination of the patient with a view to discussing
the case with examiners. The examination mirrors
clinical reality and the candidate’s competence is
judged by senior colleagues. The problems with the
traditional long case are self-evident. A candidate’s
competence is determined by his or her performance
on a single case. In clinical practice we would be
wary of reaching major decisions on the basis of a
single case report and the argument goes that we
should be equally wary of such decisions in clinical
examinations. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that
the outcome of the examination for the candidate
can be adversely influenced by factors such as the
difficulty of the case and the cooperation of the given
patient. Examiner factors can also have undue
influence: a single ‘rogue’ examiner can unfairly
influence the outcome for the candidate. These
concerns about the traditional long case are not
APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 349
necessarily fatal to the long case as a method of
examining candidates. However, we are obliged to
find solutions to the problems described above. One
solution to the traditional long case is the OSCE.
Objective structured clinical examinations allow
a candidate’s clinical competence over a relatively
wide area to be sampled. Usually, in excess of 10
OSCE stations are used. In the College’s OSCEs, there
will be 12 stations. Undue influence of one examiner
on the outcome for any candidate is much reduced.
Thus, the reliability of the examination is markedly
better than it is for the single long case. There are
concerns, though, about face validity. Actors take
the part of patients, complex clinical tasks are
deconstructed into their component parts and it is
the component parts that are tested. Thus, it could
be argued that the skill to examine a single case and
make sense of it in all its complexity is not examined.
Furthermore, especially in general medicine and
surgery, physical examination findings are often
normal because simulated patients are normal
people. This raises issues about the test’s capacity
to assess the candidate’s ability not merely to
conduct a sound physical examination but also
to recognise and to describe abnormality.
What is clear from the discussion above is that a
fair, reliable and valid examination will have to
adopt a multiplicity of methods to assess candidates.
The more methods, and convergence of results from
these varying methods, the more confident we will
be that the outcome for candidates is an accurate
reflection of their knowledge and skills. This is the
so-called method of triangulation, and it is the overall approach that the College takes. Thus, in the
MRCPsych examinations, Part I candidates have to
satisfy the examiners in a modified MCQ paper, an
EMI paper and an OSCE. Part II candidates will have
to satisfy the examiners in a modified MCQ paper,
an EMI paper, a critical review paper, an essay
paper, a traditional long case and a structured oral
Wallace et al (2002) pose a number of questions
directly about OSCEs. I will now consider each of
these in turn.
In view of this being a ‘high-stakes’ postgraduate
examination, how are reliability and validity
The validity of examinations can be determined in a
number of ways. Usually, an examination must relate
to a published curriculum. The new College
APT (2002), vol. 8, p. 350
curriculum (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2001)
was developed following wide consultation within
the College. This presupposes that any examination
that follows this curriculum derives its legitimacy
from it, that is, it validly examines what the body of
the College has determined as requisite to the proper
practice of psychiatry in the UK. There are ancillary
methods for ensuring validity. A ‘blueprint’ for the
preparation of the examination must be developed.
A blueprint is simply a grid or map developed from
the curriculum that allows questions to be commissioned or the examination itself to be audited. Such
a blueprint exists for the College’s OSCE. It is also
possible to test for validity by carrying out a survey
of clinicians and trainees to assess how far the
questions reflect clinical realities in psychiatry. The
College has every intention of carrying out such a
survey when appropriate. Predictive validity, as
opposed to content validity, can be tested by
exploring how far performance on the OSCE
predicts performance on other aspects of the
examination or on career progression. Aspects of
the predictive validity of the OSCE will be investigated in the future.
Objective structured clinical examinations are
recognised as highly reliable examinations. Data
collected from the College’s pilot OSCE, yet to be
reported, confirm this. The κ score for the examination as a whole was about 0.8. The second pilot
OSCE took place in April 2002, and the statistic of
the OSCEs will shortly be reported.
Wallace et al/Oyebode
been introduced by the Royal College of Physicians,
among others. There is no reason to think that there
is any problem with marking OSCEs. OSCEs are
objectively marked. This means that the weighting
of particular objectives within each OSCE station
is determined before the examination and the
examiner’s task is to award marks for each objective
as listed on the mark sheet. Whether the candidate
passes or not is determined by his or her performance
on these objectives and by the relative weighting of
How can key psychiatric skills such as empathy
and building rapport with patients be assessed?
All the OSCE stations in the College examinations
will have communication skills as an objective. In
practice it is not difficult to identify the candidate
who is unable to establish rapport and empathise
with the patient. Inability to use all the well-known
interviewing techniques such as open-to-closed
cone questions, summary and reflective statements
will indicate to examiners that this is a poor
candidate. In the College’s pilot OSCE held in April
2002, the reliability of the simulated patients’
assessment of the candidates’ communication skills
was tested. In North America, simulated patients’
opinions are taken into account in determining the
candidate’s final mark. There is no intention to do
this in the College examinations. However, we will
have data, following the next pilot examination, to
explore this issue in more detail.
What is the added value of OSCEs
over the current method of examination?
Objective structured clinical examinations have all
the advantages discussed above. They allow a wide
area of skills to be tested and reduce the impact of
any one examiner on the overall outcome for the
candidate. They also allow the College to test areas
of practice currently unexamined. These include: the
ability to communicate diagnosis and treatments to
patients and their relatives; physical examinations;
interpretation of results; and communicating
complex judgements to other clinicians, including
nurses, physicians and senior psychiatrists.
What skills can be adequately tested
by binary checklists?
The marking schedule is not binary. The schedule is
a 5-point scale as used in other College clinical
examinations. OSCEs are used in the General
Medical Council Professional Language and
Assessment Board (PLAB) examinations and have
The changes to the College examination, of which
OSCEs are only an example, demonstrate the
College’s commitment to continue to improve its
examinations in line with best current evidence. In
many areas, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’
approach is in advance of other medical Royal
Colleges. The aim is to have the fairest, most valid
and reliable examination that is possible.
Royal College of Psychiatrists (2001) Curriculum for Basic
Specialist Training and the MRCPsych Examination. London:
Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Wallace, J., Rao, R. & Haslam, R. (2002) Simulated patients
and objective structured clinical examinations: a review
of their use. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 8, 342–348.